Guest blog by Samantha Lee, Senior Project manager, Curlew LIFE project

The UK breeding population of curlews has almost halved since the mid-1990s. This is not just a problem because we don’t want to lose this species from our landscapes, but because the UK is one of the most important countries for curlews, supporting approximately 40% of the European breeding population and about a quarter of the global population. What happens to our population here has worldwide impact.

Causes of decline

Declines have been driven by wide scale changes in land use such as in grazing management, improvement of grassland and increased forestry. This has reduced both the quantity and quality of breeding habitat for curlews. These changes have also led to increased predation pressure on eggs and chicks, and these combined factors have resulted in ongoing poor breeding success to the point that curlews breeding in the UK are simply not producing enough young to maintain stable populations. In Northern Ireland and Wales, declines are so steep (-82%, -69% respectively) that country-level extinctions are a real possibility within the next couple of decades if the issues causing their decline are not resolved.

Traditional meadow nesting habitat. Image: Gavin Thomas RSPB

A new project to reverse curlew declines

Thanks to generous support from the EU LIFE programme and several in-country partners, the ‘Curlews in Crisis’ project started earlier this year. The project will work across some of the most important areas for breeding curlew in the UK, to reverse curlew declines:

  • Lough Erne lowlands and Antrim plateau in Northern Ireland
  • Conwy county in Wales
  • Geltsdale and Hadrian’s Wall landscape in northern England
  • Insh Marshes reserve in Scotland

In each of these project areas we’ll be improving habitat conditions both directly and through advice to landowners and managers.

So far, site teams have been busy monitoring where our curlews are, as well as using information about nest locations to enable us to protect nests and monitor breeding success. Weather conditions this year have not been favourable for many breeding waders, including curlews. However we do already have some good news, in Northern Ireland we have six nests and seven broods at our Antrim plateau area and 11 nests and 16 broods at Lower Lough Erne.

Nest cameras have been set up to monitor the outcome of some of these nests:

 

What do curlews need?

Curlews are a ground-nesting bird. They generally breed in open moorland, rough pasture, and meadows – habitats that provide cover and camouflage alongside plenty of insect food. Adults start looking for suitable nesting habitat in February, with the key nesting and chick rearing period between April and July. They like areas with a mix of sward heights to provide a bit of cover but also open aspects with good visibility. Mechanical operations and high stocking densities can be a risk to nests and chicks during this period.

Curlews probe areas of soft soil for earthworms, leatherjackets and beetles but will also take surface insects such as caterpillars and spiders. These surface insects are particularly important for chicks.

Grazed field providing suitable nesting and foraging habitat in the Conwy county project area, Wales. Image: Samantha Lee RSPB

Project area feature: Habitat management at the Geltsdale and Hadrian’s Wall project area

Our northern England project area supports about 220 pairs of curlews, making it one of the most important breeding sites for curlews in England. It includes the RSPB Geltsdale reserve as well as over 10,000 ha of farmland along the Hadrian’s wall landscape.

On the reserve, we undertake mechanical habitat management that we know benefits curlews. We cut heather and rush to improve sward structure in uneven patches so as to avoid creating pathways that predators can use. We are also trialling new techniques in livestock management; this has previously included supporting a farmer to convert from sheep to cattle grazing and this year includes the use of Nofence grazing technology. Staff at the reserve are able to control cattle movements using an app on their phone which is linked to collars that the cattle wear. This means when a nest is located, they can exclude cattle from the area, reducing nest disturbance and the risk of trampling. This new technology is currently under trial in a small area of the reserve but will allow us to share knowledge and experience after the breeding season as to its effectiveness in protecting curlews in these areas.

In the wider landscape, initially the main focus has been to carry out monitoring for breeding curlew which will allow us to target our resources to key areas and after a late start to the breeding season the team have just located their first nest! . Once this year’s breeding season is over, we’ll be working with farmers to improve habitat for curlew and supporting networks of land managers more widely.

A section of the area the team have been monitoring along Hadrian’s Wall. Image: Samantha Lee RSPB

How you can help to support curlews on your land?

  • Reduce livestock pressure during the nesting period
  • Avoid undertaking mechanical operations during the breeding season or check for breeding pairs and avoid potential nest locations
  • Avoid planting trees near areas that curlews use to nest
  • Manage areas to provide a mix of sward heights through rotational cutting or livestock grazing
  • Provide damp ground and flower-rich areas for insect food

Find out more about land management for curlews by visiting our species advice page

To find out more about the project, or if you manage land within any of the project areas and are interested in getting involved, please visit our project website, or contact samantha.lee@rspb.org.uk

The Curlews in Crisis project has received funding from the LIFE Programme of the European Union

  

Additional funding has also been received from Cairngorms connect, Fellfoot Forward Landscape Partnership Scheme, Green Recovery Challenge Fund, Natural Resources Wales, NIEA-DAERA , RSPB.

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